Nepal's First Female President: Moving away from Patriarchy?

Nepal joined its neighbours in electing its first female head of state last Wednesday. Bidya Devi Bhandari, of the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-ML), is the second President to be elected since Nepal abolished its monarchy in 2008. The election of a woman for President is said to be an achievement for a country such as Nepal, where previous to the implementation of new constitution in September 2015, the legal rights for women were largely restricted. The 2015 Nepalese constitution has increased its quota for women in the parliament and has made it compulsory for government committees to have women members. Bindya Devi being elected President, in itself, is viewed as a great stride for gender equality in the political arena.  

President Bindya Devi started her political career in the late 1970s in a Leftist Student Union, and in 1980-1981 got membership of the then CPN-ML. After getting married to the Communist leader, Madan Kumar Bhandari, Bidya Devi left politics. She said that being a wife was her primary role. In 1993, Madan Kumar Bhandari was killed in a mysterious car crash, which led Bidya Devi to re-enter politics.

Bidya Devi, in the past, has held cabinet positions that include the Minister of Defense in the Madhav-Nepal led government of 2009-2011 and the Minister for Environment and Population in the 1990s. She is also known to have led demonstrations against King Gayendra in 2006 which finally led to the end of his authoritarian rule in 2008.

Additionally, Bidya Devi is a well-known women’s rights activist and has led her party's ‘women cell’ for more than a decade. For over two decades she also led the All Women Nepal Association that is “building powerful mass-based women's movement to uplift the status of women in the society.” More recently, she actively lobbied for the new constitution to either have a woman President or Prime Minister and is credited for the legislation requiring 33% of the members of parliament to be women. In the new constitution introduced in 2015, Bidya Devi’s activism led to the addition that “women be included in all government committees”. Although Bidya Devi has worked to include women in the workplace, she is criticized by women’s feminist groups for her support of recent changes in ‘citizenship by descent’ in the new constitution.

While the new constitution requires more women lawmakers and women in all governmental committees, the same constitution is discriminating against Nepalese women, their children and spouses. The Citizenship Provision in the 2015 Nepalese constitution clarifies that children of a foreign male and Nepalese female, Article 11.7, states that they are only entitled to naturalized citizenship. However, a child of a Nepalese male and foreign female is assured a Nepalese citizenship by descent.

It is also made more difficult for a female to get citizenship through descent compared to that for a male. A Nepalese female has to establish that her father is Nepali to receive citizenship through descent. For this to be done, the mother of the Nepalese female needs to present proof that her husband (father of female in question) is not a foreigner. Subsequently, the mother has to provide proof of Nepalese citizenship for her husband, so that the Nepalese female in question can become a citizen. If the mother cannot prove so, or her husband (father of female in question) denies their relationship, the female will be denied Nepalese citizenship through descent. This is an issue when looking at cases with children born due to sexual violence. A female child, in such a case, cannot claim citizenship through the mother. In this case, the female victim in this case would be forced to find and involve the father in the process in order to receive Nepalese citizenship for her female child.

President Bidya Devi’s acceptance of  the new citizenship provision is only one of several red flags that has caught the attention of the media. At a program, few months before she was elected, she discussed the new constitution and “criticized feminists and women’s rights advocates who are demanding more rights as being influenced by Western values.”. According to a Nepalese newspaper, she said

“Whether we agree with it or not, in Eastern culture and tradition, a woman is entirely devoted to a man ... This may be a discriminatory system, but our society has always functioned this way.”

This statement suggests that President Bidya Devi, while known to be a women’s rights activist, still believes that women should be ‘devoted’ to men and are consequently not equal to them. Additionally,  “She has claimed that the traditional role of women in Nepal - a homemaker - should be maintained.” While she is credited with increasing women’s participation in the Nepalese Government and thus challenging sexism at an institutional level, she doesn’t seem to challenge sexism at its roots. Therefore, “eastern culture and tradition” has become a reason to diminish the gender inequality in Nepalese society. While increasing the quota for women in the government will help Nepal shift from a traditionally male-dominated society, it might only benefit a small group of qualified and educated women. Even though it is important for more women to hold positions of power in the government, gender inequality issues in the general population cannot be ignored.